Posted tagged ‘writing’

More On Blocking Writer’s Block – Discipline/Playfulness

December 2, 2009

Generally, I really do believe that discipline is the paramount tool  in (i) getting real work done; and (ii) achieving lasting happiness.  (A bit of a workaholic, I have a hard time imagining happiness in the absence of real work.)

Discipline is especially important if your real work is creative.  Inspiration is terrific, of course, but the tangible application of inspiration generally takes some putting of your shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone.

And yet….   And yet…  creativity also requires play—the shaking free of the shoulder, the picking of the nose off the grindstone and thumbing it at the world, the off-beat syncopation of the song, the heightened leap of the dance,  the crazy invented rhyme, the stroke, if not of genius, at least of ingenuity.

Discipline/play—it’s a pretty crazy balancing act, strength and elasticity, practice and spontaneity, muscle and frill.

Actually, I’m not sure that “frill” is the right word.  Maybe “flow” works better.  “Flow” sounds pretty darn creative, and yet unchannelled flow can also end in puddles, swampland, ditches, floating you away, sinking you in muck.  (Yes, I’ve probably taken that metaphor too far.)

Still, the point is that you need to figure out a balance–a way to discipline your use of time, while remaining playful within that time.  It’s important too, even while disciplined, to remain open to obsession, crazy tangents.   Adhere only to discipline and you could end up writing computer manuals, or worse, you could self-implode, and become simply escapist, reading vampire novels all night.

Too much playfulness, on the other hand, can also lead to complete self-indulgence, ending up in mindless haiku.   (Sorry, good haiku.)

Unfortunately, after a lot of discipline, I’ve moved into to the escapist mode in the last few days.  As a result, I’ll end this right here so I can go back to my nighttime reading.

(For more specific suggestions on blocking writer’s block, or other creative blocks, check out my posts in this category from the ManicDDaily home page.)

Newspeople, Bloggers, Blocking Writer’s Block

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote a kind of odd post about “Celebrity News” which focused on the addictive quest for celebrity in our culture.  I also discussed the intense craving of some newspeople, particularly TV newspeople, to be people “in the news” as well as people discussing it.

I felt a little guilty writing so dismissively about newspeople’s quest for attention.   It did not escape me that bloggers could be said to suffer from similar cravings.

I can’t speak for all bloggers—I only really know one.   Still, I think the average blogger’s pursuit of attention is somewhat different from that of the average TV newsperson.  First, the newsperson often seems to be embued by grandiosity;  a (perhaps inherent) narcissism has already been gorged by all the staff persons hovering– brushing their hair, checking their noses, patting their tummies—(wait a second, that’s spaniels–)

A blogger, in contrast, tends to be alone when working, either by choice or happenstance.  (The blogger’s family, losing all hope of a dinner at home, has gone out.)   The blogger, unlike the TV newsperson, or any TV persona, receves little coddling; their “stats” are a pretty good ego-toughener.   Moreover, the blogger knows that even the few that do “view” the blog may look for a second at most—the time it takes to realize that a mouthwatering tag like “Robsten” has led to no new gossip and questionable adulation.

As a result, the blogger must garner sustenance from the age-old wisdom of Gandhi, as quoted by that newly-minted sage, Robert Pattinson, in the trailer of his upcoming movie, Remember Me: “Gandhi said that whatever you do in life is insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it.”  (Sorry, but in the downswing from the manic side, I find myself studying this trailer.)

Which brings up what may be the most important difference between the TV newsperson’s motivations and the blogger’s.  The blogger (or at least the only blogger I know) does not crave attention so much as expression.  Yes, the blogger is thrilled when the number of hits rises, but his (her)  most engaging and happy moments, are those spent actually writing, typing, and cursorily editing, each post.  And then, of course, the pressing of the little button that says “Publish,” and the watching of that little button spin.

This is something for those with writer’s block to remember.   Try to get hooked on the process, and not to think too much of the impression that you, as the person engaging in the process, are making.  Of course, you need to keep your audience in mind.  You are trying to communicate.  You want your readers both (i) to be able to follow your work and (ii) to want to follow your work.   But try to keep the focus on the the writing, the message, and not on yourself as its deliverer.  Writing is not about getting your nose powdered, head (or tummy) patted, but about putting the words on the page.

Crazy Day Nights, Bed Tea

November 12, 2009

Crazy days, no nights.  Yes, the sun sets.  Quite early, in fact.  But you know those weeks when, even after darkness falls (which, okay, never completely happens in the City), and all the lights are off in your apartment (except for the little green and red ones in the various cable boxes), and the down blanket is tucked softly around your shoulder (unless it suddenly feels too hot), and your sleeping socks are comfortably on feet that would otherwise be too cold or too dry to relax (yes, it would be better if one was not a footie while the other a knee sock)– but you know what I mean–those hours when you should sleep but your mind still churns through numbers, conversations, projected conversations, or worse, if you do drift off briefly, images of the back of a computer, torn open so that wires and tubes protrude, the same wires and tubes that hold the only copies of your most dear and precious files.

My husband dreams of things like flying; Mao Tse Tung floating down the Yangtze in an inner tube; himself, naked, except for a pickaxe slung across his back, scaling the wall of a garden party where all other males are strapped into spats and morning coats.  As a result, perhaps, he is always promoting the virtue of many hours of sleep, or, at least, the prescribed eight.

He doesn’t understand that this prescription is not appealing to those who dream, if at all, about the backs of their laptops torn open.

I, on the other hand, am a great believer in sitting in bed for long periods,  propped up by pillows, awake, but feeling both mindless and blissfully guilt-free because (a) it’s either too early or too late for the overdrive to control; (b) I really am pretty tired after all the nights of torn-open computer backs; and (c) that mindless part I mentioned earlier in this sentence.   All the while drinking bed tea, which, for these purposes, I will define as virtually any steaming hot beverage, preferably with a bit of milk in it; and happily reading, re-reading, re-re-reading, or, in the last few months, blogging (haha!),  writing to anyone else out there who also craves some slightly mindless rest.

I wish I could pour you a cuppa….


Blocking Writer’s Block – Part X – Grow a Thicker Skin (But Not, Perhaps, A Carapace)

November 9, 2009

How do you inure yourself to criticism?  How do you view it as instructive rather than destructive?    (Note that when I  say “you”, I mean me.  This is a task I find truly difficult.)

When I first considered this question, I thought of a cockroach—something with not just a thick skin, but a hard carapace.  A creature that is at the height of evolutionary sustainability.  A survivor.

But I can’t quite stomach becoming more cockroach-like, and I don’t think I can advise it for you either.   Because, aside from its general lack of appeal, a cockroach scurries away from any bright light, which is exactly what a lot of criticism feels like–a too-bright light shone right into your eyes, or on your weak spots (that flap of flab at the back of a thigh.  Or worse, if you’re a writer:  those awkward transitions, that plot that just isn’t credible, that character, based on you, who’s simpering and inane.

The fear of criticism, or the experience of criticism, can be an old-style Berlin Wall to a struggling writer.  Not only is it an obstacle between your desire to work and your ability to work;  it is also a wall between the two halves of yourself—the half that really does want to learn and grow and improve, and the half which wants anything you do, no matter how flawed, to be called brilliant, at least, good enough.

Because I’m so bad at this, I can only give a few random clues as to how to get better:

1.  Don’t show work too early.  It can be both humiliating and paralyzing to have your reader point out problems that you would have caught yourself if you’d only waited a few weeks beyond the glow of completion.

2.   Take care to whom you show things.  It’s helpful if you truly believe that your reader respects you and your abilities, no matter what they say about the particular piece.

3.  Try to focus on what you can learn from a specific critique.   Keep in mind that even if some criticism may not be fully justified, it may still point out something that doesn’t fully work.

4.  After due consideration, if you feel your work is good, hold your ground.  Consider your reader’s perspective and taste.  Is it the same as yours?  Is it infallible?

5.  Distance yourself.  Those words on the page are not you.  What you wrote yesterday is not you today.  There are countless ways to skin a cat; it takes all types to make a world.  Which means—yes, you can revise it (no matter how impossible that feels).

6.  When all the above has been tried, and you really just can’t bear any more, scurry into a dark crevice.   But don’t just wait till it’s safe to come out again.  Work from there.  Keep working even from there.

For more on Writer’s Block, check other posts in this category.  And, as always, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson, on Amazon or at link on ManicDDaily home page.

Blocking Writer’s Block – Part IX – An Exile of One’s Own

November 8, 2009

I’ve been thinking today about writer’s block in the context of both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.  This is, in part, due to the stress inherent in a bifurcated modern life (that is, a life of both struggling writer and struggling person), and, in part, to one daughter telling me about a paper on Dubliners and another,  a course on Woolf.

While, to my mind, the work of each of Woolf and Joyce is incomparably great, both seemed to have difficulties with blocks of a sort–Woolf sinking into terrible depressions, Joyce into (some would say) incomprehensibility.  But I don’t want to write about their blocks today; what I’ve been thinking of were their specific devices for freeing blocks, devices for which they are respectively emblematic.

In Woolf’s case, I refer to the idea of having a room of one’s own; that is, space, time, and the confidence to work from.  She wrote about the particular need of women writers for these resources, and, while I believe women still have a harder time than men (women having to fight with themselves, as well as the outside world), getting a “room of one’s own” is hard for any struggling writer.

When I think of a writing tool important to Joyce, I think of self-imposed exile; Stephen Dedelus, leaving home, family, Ireland.    Exile represents freedom–from the bosom of the status quo, from one’s accepted identity, from responsibility to, and for, the feelings and well-being of loved ones, freedom even from the background noise and clutter of loved ones.

Exile also represents action, the conscious making of a commitment to one’s work.

I am probably not the best advisor on these points, as I (i) have rarely had a room of my own in my adult life; and (ii) can’t even bear imagining leaving my family.  I do think it is important to keep some form of these tools in mind, however, if you are a struggling writer or artist.

First, re Woolf:   A physical space of your own may not be possible,especially if you live in New York City, or some other high rent district.  Your private “room”, as it were,  may need to be on your laptop, in a notebook, in the simple habit of writing.  Strangely, this interior space may best be initially framed in public. It may be easier to block out the noises and antics of strangers than of loved ones (for example, music in a café may bother you considerably less than the TV in your living room.)

Don’t be picky.   Try making a room out of any quiet moment–a relatively uncrowded subway car, a bench in a museum, a wait for an appointment.

Carry your room with you.   Get a notebook of a size and shape that you like, buy a large number of good pens, and keep them in an easy-to-access spot—your purse or coat pocket rather than backpack.

Once you have your room (your writing habit),  go into it frequently, like a child for whom you’ve just built a fort or teepee.  Take delight in how easily you can enter, then exit, then enter again.   Enjoy the view, looking both in and out.   Don’t bother to wipe your feet.

“Exile” comes in the form of realism.  Know when you are simply not going to be able to work at home, and get your computer or notebook and drag them and yourself somewhere else.  Treat yourself to a cab if your computer is heavy, or, better yet, treat yourself to a lighter computer.  If you just can’t stand to leave home, pay family members to go to a sports bar.  (Hey!  It’s cheaper than moving to Paris.)  Don’t be afraid to be a little openly irritable, if, inside, you are extremely frustrated.

The point is that it’s possible to get micro-versions of Woolf’s room and Joyce’s exile.  And frankly, a micro-version may be all you are truly able to stomach.

Finally–if your “room” or your “exile” is on your laptop, then keep it truly private, truly remote–i.e. write when you are writing, don’t go online.  (Other than to ManicDDaily!)

Blocking Writer’s Block – Part VIII (at least) – Ignore Insignificance

November 7, 2009

One of the side effects of a tragedy like the shooting at Fort Hood is its overshadowing of so many other concerns.  The event is just so sad that it makes much else seem, at least, temporarily, insignificant.  (I say, temporarily, because, attention spans are short in our media-drenched culture.)

Such overshadowing can be especially problematic for a writer or artist suffering from writer/artist’s block.  One feels idiotic to even mention such an issue, but there it is–one more reason why one’s work feels stupid, not worth the trouble.   This is especially true if you are a writer or artist whose work doesn’t deal with these kinds of violent tragic impulses, this extent of sudden loss.

This reaction sounds terribly narcissistic.   But usually the struggling writer/artist feels the national tragedy deeply.  He/she may want to respond in some helpful, articulate, way, but can only come up with platitudes.  Writing well about politics and despair may simply not be one’s cup of tea.  However, in the midst of such events, writing about anything else may feel idiotic.

Don’t be driven into inaction because you feel insignificant.  Go on.  You are who you are.  You do the work you do.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t stretch yourself.  You absolutely should.  (Especially if you’re someone prone to blocks or avoidance.)   But don’t give up on something because you feel that it seems silly, inconsequential.

Think about (i)  Dutch interior paintings (Vermeer); and (ii) still lives (Cezanne, Braque, Picasso).

Think  about (i) Charlotte’s Web, (just about the most brilliant children’s book every written – about a pig, spider, and barn);  (ii) Ulysses (a day, mainly, in the life of humdrum Leopold Bloom, (iii) To the Lighthouse (which has, to my mind, one of the most heartbreaking descriptions of the changes in England wrought by World War I, told mainly by the wind rushing through an abandoned house, (iv) The Importance of Being Earnest, (v)  A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; (vi) almost any poem by Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, lots of  Chinese poets, (vii) too many others to name.

Don’t judge yourself so much.  If you are someone that writes about Columbine, or 9/11, or Fort Hood, that’s wonderful–our world needs help understanding these horrible events.    But don’t worry if you do not directly work on these things;  everything you are and know and think about is in the core, or texture, or background of what you do.  So just do it;  it will do.

PS – check out my many other posts re writer’s block, and writing, and writing exercises, by checking those categories.  Also, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson at Amazon, or at link from home page.

What Makes Young People (And Some of Us Others) Re-read

October 27, 2009

For those of you who actually follow this blog, and don’t just click on a link that happens to mention Robsten or the Twilight Saga, I’m sorry!  There’s not been much poetry over the last couple of days, but a lot of clicks.

Yes, I like the clicks.  (And, strangely, “Robsten” seems to generate a whole bunch more than, let’s say, “sestina.”)

But I want to explain to you (who may not understand why in the world I write about this stuff) that I truly am interested in a couple of facets of Twilight mania (besides each of Rob’s cheekbones.)

First:  despite all the poetry I’ve posted on this blog, I am mainly a fiction writer, primarily for children and young adults.  As a result, I am fascinated by the question of what makes people read a book again and again.  And I have to say (without mentioning anything about my own experience) that the Twilight mania proves Twilight et al. to be a set of those much re-read books.

It’s a given that books that generate this type of obsessive re-reading are not always particularly “good” books, i.e. well-written.  In fact, many “good” books, that is, really profound, original, heart-wrenching, or poetic books, are not the most dog-eared at the end of the day (or lifetime.)  It’s almost as if such books are too sharp, too bitter, too stinging, to be savored again and again (in the same way that grapefruit is not typically considered a comfort food.)

This is not to say that much re-read books are poorly written!  (Charlotte’s Web and  Harry Potter are much re-read great books.) Only that good writing alone does not make a book a good re-read.  (Nor does a good plot, good jokes, good suspense, even though one or more of these is likely to be present.)

So what does make a book a good re-read?

To me, the distinguishing factor is that the book creates characters with whom readers like to spend time, sometimes, too, a world in which readers like to spend time.

Reading a book is a commitment.  It means hours in which you are not conversing, i-ming, watching TV; hours, in other words, in which you are alone.  Sometimes, in fact, a book is a way to be alone, a path to privacy in a place with hard-to-place boundaries, such as a subway, or, if you are a child, a family dinner.

Because of the inherent solitude of reading, it is important that the main character is good company—fun, cool (but not too cool as to be unempathetic), willing to share confidences.  Being admirable is helpful too, as long as there are also sympathetic and/or humorous failings and idiosyncrasies.  (Sam Vines, Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett, even Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie.)

The world of a much re-read book can, of course, have its dark side.  But it is hard to repeatedly spend time in a world that is overwhelmingly creepy or frightening. (The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and even Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, are obvious examples of wonderful books in which the worlds created, or re-created, are just too horrific to motivate re-reads.  On the children’s shelf, similarly, the later tomes of the wonderful, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, that is, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, also, with the exception of certain scenes, get both too threatening and rarified for a child’s immediately repeated visits.)

Ideally, the created world, even if dark, has a fun, semi-magical side.  (Hogwarts, obviously; the barn in Charlotte‘s Web, Florida, as seen by Carl Hiassen, Discworld, as envisioned by Terry Pratchett.)

Re-reading is a particular practice of the young and the young (or perhaps, immature) at heart who can repeatedly find sustenance in something that’s already well-digested.  (Sort of like baby penguins.)   This may be because the young (and not young, but immature) are themselves subject to (i) so much fluctuation, and (ii) so much beyond their control, that they find special comfort in the predictability of a “known” fiction.   The combination of the familiar with the fantastical may be especially appealing.

Romance makes a great re-read as well.   First love is a story that has been told again and again and again; is it any wonder that some people don’t mind re-reading the exact same version of it?

Which brings me back to Twilight.

Tomorrow or in the near future (if I get time),  I’ll write about the second facet that I find interesting—that is, what makes people re-see a movie, as opposed to re-read a book.

In the meantime, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson on Amazon.